Principals ponder big questions at training session

Waverly Elementary Principal Tammy Hermes adds to her answer for “how can you do it all” while Triopia Grade School Principal Jamie Hobrock watches during a recent training session in Pittsfield. Focusing on boosting principals’ time as instructional leaders is one facet of two federal research grants. | H-W Photo/Deborah Gertz Husar
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 9, 2019 12:01 am

PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- With pen in hand, Tammy Hermes adds an answer to a question facing every elementary and secondary school principal.

How can you do it all?

Hermes suggests scheduling tasks so time is used wisely and prioritizing with reminders for "top of list" items.

Most important might be her first response: "Give yourself permission not to be able to do it all."

Principals from across the region pondered some big questions from urgency with student growth to ways to model effective time use during a recent training session held at the John Wood Community College Southeast Education Center in Pittsfield. But all the questions dealt, to some degree, with time and priorities.

"Time is one of the biggest challenges," said Michaela Fray, LEAD coordinator with Regional Office of Education No. 1. "We know we want students to grow. We want to enhance teaching and learning, but there's just so many hours in a day."

Focusing on boosting principals' time as instructional leaders is one facet of two federal research grants targeting developing that leadership at the school level.

"To me, it's a game changer. It's a program that didn't exist when I was a principal," said Curt Simonson, interim superintendent at Franklin who serves as one of three LEAD coaches with West Prairie Superintendent Carol Kilver and retired QPS Principal Anne Cashman.

Principals always were supposed to spend more than half of their day on school improvement, but "the reality of that was you spent 90 to 95% with 4 to 5% of the population. You weren't getting to focus on school improvement," he said. "This program allows you to put a process in place and really take a look at the issues that you're dealing with."

ROE1 is one of four statewide involved in the grants written by the Center for Educational Policy at Illinois State University, and both Quincy Public Schools and school districts across the region are benefiting from training and coaching tied to the grants.

"For me the biggest piece is connecting with other educators in a similar situation as I am," said Hermes, elementary principal at Waverly.

"Being in a small, rural school, you don't have as many resources as a bigger school. Whenever we get together with these teams, there's so many different people going through the same day-to-day issues. We can bounce ideas off each other, not only learn from the content Michaela is presenting but learn from each other."

Training sessions that began last year focused on the cycles of inquiry process "to help us figure out what the main issue was and how to get to end of it," said Thad Walker, superintendent and elementary principal at Meredosia-Chambersburg. "We started a lot of things that weren't finished. Keeping data on cycles helped us stay focused on the true outcome."

Walker's district, for example, prioritized working with social-emotional issues.

"Once we correct some of those, the academic stuff fixes itself. Once the academics fixes itself, frustration and behavior of kids fixes itself," Walker said. "To focus on each one separately is so hard, but if you find the root cause, other things start taking care of themselves."

That, in turn, helps free up more time in a day -- and so does taking a more intentional approach.

"This is really being more intentional with looking at how did I spend my day, reflecting on that and trying to make a plan for the next day," Hermes said.

Simonson coaches 10 area principals from Pleasant Hill and Brown County to Waverly and Triopia, meeting with them once a month for conversation.

"Because they don't have the advantages other places have, this kind of levels that playing field. Small districts because of their resources can't do some things larger districts can do," Simonson said.

Five more training sessions in Pittsfield are planned this school year for the principals -- providing more time together.

"We really tried to design the learning opportunities around where there's time to talk, time to engage in problem-solving and time to network so that they can learn and grow together," Fray said.